Throwback to 1998

Reviewing the Game Boy Camera in 2021: A beautiful, twisted throwback

I bought Nintendo’s 23-year-old Game Boy Camera and despite many annoyances, shooting with it is a remarkably refreshing experience.

Game Boy Camera review: Reviewing the Nintendo's 23-year-old toy camera in 2021
Raymond Wong / Input

The Game Boy Camera’s 0.5-megapixel, 128 x 112 resolution, 2-bit (!!!) photos look like garbage compared to even today’s worst budget phone cameras. The quirky software, designed by Pokémon developer Game Freak, is punishingly slow without a heavy dose of patience. And it costs more money than I’d like to spend to buy a piece of kit to download the pixelated images to a computer.

And yet... There's something remarkably charming and refreshing about taking photos with the Game Boy Camera in 2021. An avid community has been quietly reviving Game Boy Camera photography from forgotten ‘90s junk into a celebrated art form.

Game Boy Camera photography — the accessory was quite possibly the first mainstream camera for taking selfies — is having a moment. Creatives like Chris Graves (@thegameboycamera on Instagram), Jean-Jacques Calbayrac (@gameboycameraman), and Michelle Touy (@mikato.me) are pushing back against today’s accessible smartphone. The spike in interest with Nintendo’s 23-year-old toy camera for the Game Boy has no doubt been fueled by a wave of nostalgia for retro gaming, new tech that lets you download the previously print-only photos, and an enthusiast community on platforms like Reddit and Discord where photographers and tinkerers can share their love for not only the cartridge-based gadget, but DIY mods to enhance its capabilities beyond what Nintendo originally intended.

With a camera in everyone’s pocket and trillions of digital photos taken and shared by humanity every year, Game Boy Camera photography is a refreshing inverse to increasingly cookie-cutter photography. The democratization of photography, first with digital cameras and then smartphone cameras, has had a profound effect on documenting life and preserving memories. Remember: 100 years ago photography was a vocation for the specially trained. Now, even babies know how to takes selfies before they learn to talk or walk. But at the same time, the accessibility of photography has created an endless feed of photos that are carbon copies of each other. Look no further than Instagram’s Explore page to be served billions (yes, with a B) of photos with identical or “inspired” (as the copycats insist) composition and tones.

It’s as weird and quirky as it looks.Raymond Wong / Input
I promise you that shooting with a Game Boy Camera will push you outside of your photography comfort zone.

I had a good idea of what I was getting myself into when I bought two Game Boy Cameras off eBay in February. (I’ll explain why I bought two in a bit.) Having interviewed several creatives who’ve been championing Game Boy Camera photography, I was well aware of the technological challenges I would face shooting with Nintendo’s toy camera. The Game Boy Camera’s ancient hardware and limited low-res photo output had me wanting to bang my head against a wall and dying to chuck it in the trash can. However, after many weeks of trial and error, I’ve come to appreciate the Game Boy Camera because of its limitations.

A novel gimmick in 1998 when it was released, Nintendo’s toy camera is still a novel gimmick in 2021. It’s the equivalent to the return of instant photography that hipsters took a liking to in the 2010s. Shooting with the Game Boy Camera isn’t easy — it’s arguably way more difficult because everything is so slow — but for the same reasons you might snap a photo with a Polaroid or film camera, the 2-bit camera is weird, fun, and forces you to think more about your shots instead of allowing you to lazily snap away. If you’re finding yourself bored by the sameness of photos on Instagram and want truly one-of-a-kind shots, I promise you that shooting with a Game Boy Camera will push you outside of your photography comfort zone while humbly reminding you that great photography is about telling a story, eliciting an emotion or feeling, or simply capturing interesting compositions. It’s not more megapixels, not more dynamic range, and not how expensive your camera body or lens is.

Such pain, much fun

The original Game Boy was the first gadget that was truly mine. Despite being strongly against video games — I heard all of the reasons, including the usual: They’re bad for your eyes. You’ll become addicted. It’ll rot your brain like TV. — my mom got me and my older sister one. The Game Boys cost $79.99 circa 1994-95 and we each had a single game for many years. I never owned a Game Boy Camera. Not even when I was old enough to buy my own.

I’m a grown man now and I decide how to spend my money so I did what any nostalgic nerd would and bid on a few Game Boy Cameras on eBay. After a mixup from the seller — they sent me a Game Boy Pocket instead of the Game Boy Camera — and then waiting weeks to get the right item in each buyers’ hands, I popped the red Game Boy Camera into my recently cleaned Game Boy Color and Game Boy. Panic sank in as a jumbled Nintendo logo scrolled down after powering on my Game Boys. I thought to myself that after all that trouble I must have bought a broken/defective Game Boy Camera that didn’t survive two decades in someone’s attic.

My Game Boy Camera disassembled, revealing its dusty 23-year-old guts.Raymond Wong / Input
The Game Boy Camera’s teeny tiny image sensor.Raymond Wong / Input
So that’s what’s inside of the Game Boy Camera’s “eye.”Raymond Wong / Input

Thankfully, I had the toolkit that I bought last year and after removing a bunch of screws, including Nintendo’s signature tri-wing screws, I was able to inspect the innards for any damage or corrosion. I cleaned the circuit board and checked all of the wirings to make sure they weren’t loose, then reassembled the Game Boy Camera. I slotted the cartridge in and got the same scrambled Nintendo logo. Then, I remembered The Trick aka the secret to fixing every cartridge problem back in the day. I blew on the Game Boy Camera’s cartridge contacts a few times and then tried again. It worked! It was at that moment that I remembered how frustrating ‘90s technology was.

The annoyances didn’t end there. As the Game Boy Camera loaded up on my original Game Boy, I was reminded of how terrible its low-contrast screen was. There’s no backlight and even under a bright fluorescent kitchen light, I could barely see myself coming through the screen. It wasn’t much better on my Game Boy Color, which also doesn’t have a backlight. I tried the Game Boy Camera on my Game Boy Advance SP, which does have a backlight (though an extremely dim one), but the upside-down cartridge slot meant photos ended up in the wrong orientation so I put that handheld back in the closet. Unless you’ve got a modded Game Boy with an IPS display, using the Game Boy Camera with an original Game Boy, Game Boy Pocket, or Game Boy Color is eyeball torture today; I will never take the ridiculously bright displays on phone screens for granted ever again.

Using the Game Boy Camera with an original Game Boy is eyeball torture today.

The Game Boy Camera’s “eye” can be rotated 180 degrees — a very forward-thinking feature back in 1998 that can be considered a precursor to the flippy cameras on phones like the Asus Zenfone 6 that act as both the rear and selfie cameras. If you look closely, you can see the eye rotates but also tilts just a few degrees up when it’s facing away from you and a few degrees down to make selfies easier. This small detail that most people would probably never notice is classic Nintendo and spotlights how much care and consideration the Japanese gaming company puts into designing hardware.

Dated and clumsy as the hardware is today, shooting with the Game Boy Camera is a major exercise in patience and discipline for one reason: the software was designed to work as a game first and not as a camera. The inspiration for the Game Boy Camera’s software was clear even in 1998: photobooths or more specifically, the purikura sticker booths that were immensely popular in Japan during the ‘90s and ‘00s. From the Nickelodeon-style graphics to the cheesy music and sound effects to the skeuomorphic photo album, the Game Boy Camera’s software was very much a product of its time — a simpler and more expressive era long before app design embraced generic flat UI.

When I review a phone’s camera or even mirrorless or DSLRs, I note the time it takes to get from power on to click. We expect cameras of any variety to launch as quickly as possible and to snap as soon as the shutter is pressed. The Game Boy Camera takes about 10 seconds (yes, I timed it) to go from cold boot to the viewfinder and that’s if you mash on the A button to breeze through the menus. It’ll take longer if you let the intro screen load and whatnot. That immediately makes the Game Boy Camera too slow to shoot a fleeting moment unless you’ve already got it turned on and ready to go. That is an unwise thing to do because Game Boys, as you likely know, use AA or AAA batteries and do not have any kind of sleep or standby mode whatsoever. Leaving it on means you’re wasting power and there’s no hot-swapping in fresh batteries without forcing the device to shut down.

When I finally got to shoot, I quickly learned that you need a lot — and I mean a lot — of light to get a decent photo. Natural light is your friend and the Game Boy Camera takes much better photos outdoors than it does indoors. Unlike a smartphone camera or a point-and-shoot, you do need to play around with the contrast and brightness settings — for every shot. Game Freak made this a simple adjustment: just press the left and right buttons on the D-pad decrease and increase the contrast and the up and down buttons to increase and decrease the brightness. For 1998 tech, this UI is actually way simpler to understand than exposure or shutter speed or ISO on a regular camera. That said, when you’re in a hurry or if it’s freezing out, spending time pressing the D-pad is a huge pain in the ass. And don’t even get me started on some of the hidden shortcuts done via button combos. How is anyone supposed to know that stuff without an instruction manual?

Good luck seeing what you’re shooting without a good amount of light.Raymond Wong / Input
The toy camera keeps revealing new things in old places.

On the plus side, Game Freak had the foresight to include more than single-shot still photography to the Game Boy Camera. There’s a self-time and time-lapse mode under “Items” and trick lenses, montage, panorama, and game face modes under “Magic.” You can also add cute frames to your photos (told you they were photobooth-like) after taking them, but I wouldn’t say any of these extras are good. They offer the occasional fun and I’m sure in 1998 they were totally worth spending the extra time to gaggle over with a bunch of friends on the schoolyard, but I found myself ignoring them to conserve battery and shots.

On this topic, I need to stress that there is not an unlimited (or bountiful) number of photos that can be stored on the Game Boy Camera. Don’t forget, in 1998, most Game Boy cartridges stored a whopping 4 megabytes and it wasn’t until later that Game Boy Color games were capable of storing 8MB. In the Game Boy Camera’s case, it can hold 30 photos. That’s all you get. When you hit the 30-pic limit, you have to delete some shots to make room for new ones or switch to a separate Game Boy Camera. Now you know why I bought two Game Boy Cameras. It’s for this very reason why Game Boy Camera photographers like Andreas Gack and Chris Graves own and carry multiple Game Boy Cameras with them.

Oh, hi there.Raymond Wong / Input

At this point, I’ve done a lot of complaining about the Game Boy Camera’s weaknesses as a camera today, but I want to be clear on one thing: I love the process (frustrating as it is) and the photos I’ve taken even more. I’ve taken the Game Boy Camera with me all around New York City and despite the city being my constant playground for testing smartphone cameras, the toy camera keeps revealing new things in old places. The world looks very different through a pixelated 0.5-megapixel camera that doesn’t even support color. The photos I’ve taken feel more original to me with more effort put into waiting for a shot, framing it, and just making something different. I take tens of thousands of photos with my iPhone every year and many of them are often of the same thing — a plate of food, a sunset, a selfie. My Game Boy Camera photos don’t resemble the majority of the photos in my Google Photos. Not just because they’re blocky, but the compositions are vastly different. There’s a moodiness to leafless trees in one shot or a plane coming down above a church’s cross. It’s like I’ve gained a new pair of eyes capable of seeing new perspectives.

My award-winning 2-bit photos are trapped on this Game Boy Camera (for now).Raymond Wong / Input

Being limited to 30 shots per cartridge was originally something I hated. I didn’t want to delete photos. But being forced to delete an okay photo to potentially take a better shot is the necessary agony of an artist to achieve greater. Much of the reason why most photos are so uninteresting today is because we hoard them. Deleting photos — even average ones — feels like sacrilege. We convince ourselves that we’re losing something precious when instead of fearing the loss of our mediocre creations, we should be working harder to better ones.

Being forced to delete an okay photo to potentially take a better shot is the necessary agony of an artist.

The one thing I truly dislike about Game Boy Camera photography is that there’s no affordable way to download the images from the cartridge to a computer. Nintendo never intended for the digital photos to be shared on the internet. They sold a Game Boy Printer as a companion to the Game Boy Camera; I didn’t buy one because the print quality is trash and everyone recommended I buy a BitBoy, a third-party device that saves Game Boy Camera photos to an SD card. Most of the Game Boy Camera photographers I spoke to said the BitBoy was the way to go, but at $100, it’s 3-5x more than what I paid for each of my Game Boy Cameras. You better really love Game Boy Camera photography to justify the purchase. Newcomer Epilogue’s GB Operator is essentially a cartridge-based emulator that runs on your computer and the company claims it’s capable of downloading Game Boy Camera images. It’s sold out at the time of this publishing but at $50, it seems like a solid option. Obviously, no downloading on the go like the BitBoy, but not bad.

There are some alternative methods — Game Boy Maniac outlines all of the ways to do so in this great blog post — but they’re either DIY or require elaborate workarounds such as connecting a Game Boy Camera to a Super Game Boy cartridge adapter and then using a capture card to connect it to a computer. See? Told you that you have to really be committed to Game Boy Camera photography.

A DIY Arduino solution for downloading images from the Game Boy Camera to a computer.Game Boy Maniac

At the moment, I’m still a relative Game Boy Camera newbie and it’s just a hobby. I haven’t decided how serious I want to be so all my pics are stuck on the cartridge. I could see myself messing with an Arduino since I do enjoy a DIY project. But I also like simplicity. Decisions, decisions! What I do know is that I shouldn’t wait too long because like all Game Boy cartridges, the internal battery won’t last forever. I have no idea how old or new the coin batteries inside my Game Boy Cameras are. I could wake up one day to find all my photos wiped out. Maybe I’ll be sad or maybe knowing my photos are somewhat ephemeral is something to embrace instead of crying over.

Getting serious

Chris Grave’s custom Game Boy Advance with 8-hour lithium-ion battery, USB-C charging port, wooden grip, shutter button, CCTV lens adapter, and backlit IPS display.Chris Graves
The backside of the custom Game Boy Advance made specifically for Game Boy Camera shooting.Chris Graves

My experimentation with the Game Boy Camera revealed many disadvantages to shooting with it, but whereas I, a complete newcomer to this geeky and creative community, am working with original Nintendo hardware, clever shooters like Graves and Gack are the ones who upgrading the handheld and images for the modern age.

Almost all of the deficiencies that I griped about — except for the storage limitation — can be fixed with the right modifications. All it takes is a willingness to get your hands dirty and operate.

For example, Graves has gotten around the Game Boy’s limited AA battery life, poor ergonomics for shooting, and hard-to-see screen with a custom Game Boy Advance.

"I've been working on it for about a year, kind of hemming and hawing all about it, and trying to figure out what I wanted to do," Graves told Input. "Then I came across a couple of people that make their own wooden camera grips for their cameras on YouTube. They shared their process so I decided I'd go for a little camera grip and a little shutter button there. The camera grip houses a lithium-ion battery with a USB Type-C charging port on it. There's a little lanyard on there."

The wooden grip in its raw form for the custom Game Boy Advance.Chris Graves

The DIY Game Boy was modded specifically for Game Boy Camera photography and features a notable rechargeable lithium-ion battery that lasts up to 8 hours, which is plenty of power to leave it powered on ready to capture a moment; it even charges via USB-C. “I tried running a battery test on it and I got about eight hours out of it before I gave up on it. I don't need it to last more than eight hours.”

The backlit screen is an IPS display by FunnyPlaying for improving visibility. And he’s also got a lens adapter for mounting CCTV lenses over the Game Boy Camera to enhance its focal range. Other photographers such as Tim Binnion have 3D printed lens adapters; his photos at an F1 race taken with the Game Boy Camera are often cited as an inspiration to many of the most well-known Game Boy Camera photographers including Graves. Gack generously shared with Input his collection of Game Boy Cameras with various lens adapters.

A 3D-printed Canon lens adapter for the Game Boy Camera by Andreas Gack aka Herr Zatacke.Andreas Gack
Most of the fun is using the restrictions the Camera gives us, but also the ways you can modify the camera itself rather easily.”

“I found an article of someone who converted his GameBoy Camera to hold Canon Lenses and so I started to design that adapter for myself as well,” Gack said. “Usage of lenses intended for 35 mm film/sensor just result in an extreme zoom image.”

Gack’s mods have gone beyond the physical grayscale palette of the images. He’s experimented with colorizing Game Boy Camera photos and 3D printing them to give them tangible shape.

“Another challenge was to create ‘real’ color images for which I started to design a mechanical adapter to change color-filters.”

Another Game Boy Camera photographer, Jean-Jacques Calbayrac, is also working on a Game Boy Camera emulator that works in a browser for people to take photos with their phone. Calbayrac’s project is still a work-in-progress, but it’s coming along. He shared the below video of it in action with Input.

An early version of Jean-Jacques Calbayrac's browser-based Game Boy Camera emulator.Jean-Jacques Calbayrac

Many people will ask why anyone would invest in modding and shooting with a clunky Game Boy Camera when there are tons of apps like BitCam that can emulate the aesthetic of ‘90s computers and cameras.

“Most of the fun is using the restrictions the Camera gives us, but also the ways you can modify the camera itself rather easily,” Gack said.